Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sorted! Who killed the Rave Scene?

One of the joys of writing books set in the 1990s is that I get to indulge in nostalgia dressed up as research – for a living!

For ‘Games with the Dead’ I needed to explore the whole ‘rave scene’, as one of the book’s major storylines is the Ecstasy-related death of a teen girl.

First, a confession! I pretty much missed the whole ‘rave’ thing. Despite being optimum age - born in 1969 – I spent the late eighties in rave-free Ireland gazing at my Doc Martens while listening to indie. In fact, I resented the growing popularity of ‘dance music’ which, to my MDMA-deprived head at least, sounded like someone pushing a keyboard through an industrial threshing machine.

I finally attended my first rave in Brixton in 1991, baulked at the fact they didn’t sell booze and spent the rest of the night sulking / grimacing at half-wits blowing whistles and shouting ‘acieeed’. Of course, to ‘get into it’, I needed to lay off the sauce and take an E. But I’m Irish for God’s sake, and thus unwilling to go dry even to take drugs!

So, to get to the bottom of this mystery known as Rave (I realise I’m beginning to sound like Rees-Mogg here), I bought a stash of non-fiction books on the subject, including the brilliantly-researched Altered States by Matthew Collin. What I learned is that the birth and death of the ‘rave’ scene between the mid-80s and mid-90s uncannily mirrors the rise and fall of counterculture in the 1960s. Somewhat depressingly, both movements saw idealism usurped by criminality and greed.

The ‘Summers of Love’ of 1987 and ’89 sound as pure as the MDMA people were taking. With the country sinking into deep recession, young people had found a way to suspend normal transmission, if only for a single night, by becoming part of a life-affirming movement.

Of course, it wasn’t all love, hugs and baggie clothes. People died from taking E, but the casualties numbered tens not hundreds. Bearing in mind that, each year in the UK alone, 30,000 people die from alcohol-related conditions, E could be considered virtually harmless. Some supporters claim E is safer to consume than bay leaves!

But that’s not how the Tory government and the tabloid press saw it in 1989. ‘Evil Ecstasy – deadly drug sweeping the nation’ blared the headlines and hysteria took hold immediately. Sir Ralph Halpern banned Smiley t shirts from his Top Shop retail chain; Top of the Pops declared a moratorium on all records containing the word ‘Acid’.

Perhaps inevitably, the demonising of E and the rave scene acted as an almost gilt-edge invitation for criminality to weigh in. According to Customs, E coming into the UK increased 4000 per cent between 1990 and ‘95. Criminal gangs became involved in importing the drug, running clubs as outlets for drug dealing and charging dealers to get in. To boost their profits further, they soon started producing their own pills, cutting or adulterating the MDMA with cheaper speed, LSD and who knows what.

By the early ‘90s, speedy E had changed the whole vibe of rave culture from celebration to a
sort of aggressive euphoria known as Hardcore. Now, dancers’ faces seemed contorted with weird expressions, midway between snarl and smile. Ravers were dubbed Cheesy Quavers and seen as downmarket, scuzzy, underclass youth who attended clubs like Raquel’s in Basildon.

Cut to November 1995 and the death of 18-year-old schoolgirl Leah Betts four hours’ after taking an Ecstasy tablet bought at Raquel’s. Five days’ later, her grieving family turned off her life support machine and launched a 1500-site poster campaign warning about the perils of E. Under a photo of a smiling Leah, the caption read ‘Sorted. Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts’.

Weeks later, in December 1995, three criminals who ran Raquel’s nightclub were shot dead in a Range Rover, execution-style, having been lured to a rural laneway in Rettendon, Essex. The sordid headlines that followed gave politicians and police the impetus they needed to introduce Draconian licencing laws that killed off what was left of rave culture. But like all good crime stories, this one has a few unexpected twists…

What many people perhaps don’t know is that Leah Betts did not die of Ecstasy. The inquest into Leah’s death found that she died from water intoxication. Perhaps heeding government warnings about MDMA causing dehydration, Leah drank 12 pints of water after taking the pill, causing her brain to swell and slip into a coma.

I also had no idea that the ‘Sorted’ poster campaign had been part-funded by three advertising agencies. Why would these advertising companies help out a grieving family? Could it be connected to the fact that these agencies’ biggest clients back then were alcohol and energy drink companies?

After all, the rise of rave culture had severely damaged the alcohol industry. And certain energy drinks were aggressively advertising themselves as ‘safe’ alternatives to MDMA. Some suggest that both booze and energy drink companies were keen to exploit any opportunity possible to demonise Ecstasy – and the death of Leah Betts offered just that.

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